Access to justice is an ongoing problem across Canada and the call is out for lawyers to contribute to the solution.
Late last fall, the Canadian Bar Association’s Task Force on Access to Justice issued a final report, Envisioning Equal Justice. The Task Force set targets to bridge the growing gap between those who can afford legal services and those who are eligible for publically funded legal services (i.e. legal aid). One of those targets is that by 2020, all lawyers will volunteer legal services at some point in their career.
Around the same time, the Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters issued a report calling on lawyers to support access to justice initiatives. The Action Committee proposed that lawyers continue delivering pro bono and “low bono” (low-cost) legal services.
Whether you’re new to pro bono or you’ve provided low and no cost legal services throughout your career, you need to ensure you manage risk in your pro bono files. You have the same professional obligations to a pro bono client as you do to one who is paying your fees. And your pro bono client will likely have the same expectations of you as if you were sending out bills.
To manage your risk on a pro bono file, remember always to:
- Make sure you are competent. Your client deserves competent legal services. If you can’t provide that, you should decline to act.
- Get yourself up to speed. If you have limited experience in the relevant area of law, sign up for relevant continuing professional development programs. Review the relevant legislation and any texts on the subject. Talk to your colleagues who do practice in that area.
- Check for conflicts. While some law societies have rules in place that support giving summary advice or information without extensive conflict checks, those rules don’t likely apply to pro bono representation of a client. Make sure you can act for the client without putting yourself into a conflict.
- Open a file. This may seem obvious, but the point is, treat your pro bono files like every other file. Follow the same internal procedures.
- Use a retainer letter. Confirm the scope of the work you will do. Confirm your expectations of the client and set out what the client can expect from you. Managing expectations is essential to the success of the pro bono relationship.
- Communicate. Clear and effective communication is essential with every client. Don’t take shortcuts in this area.
- Use checklists. Checklists are always a good idea, but particularly so if you may be stepping into a practice area in which you’re not experienced.
- Diarize and follow-up. Calendar limitation dates, deadlines and bring forward dates as you would for any other file.
- Keep time records. You’re not sending out bills and you’re not getting paid, but you still should keep time records. This will assist you in keeping the right balance between your obligations on pro bono and fee-paying matters.
- Report on closing. Like a retainer letter, a closing report is always a good idea. It confirms what you have and have not done for a client. A closing letter can be a particularly useful communication tool in the absence of an itemized statement of account.
In other words, treat your pro bono files with the same care as you would your paid files. Your clients deserve no less.
(Republished with permission from Canadian Lawyers Insurance Association’s Loss Prevention Bulletin, Issue 59, Winter 2014).